January 24, 2005


Chris Stamey Experience.jpg

A rough, noisy effort featuring famous friends

The new album from Chris Stamey has a most unusual opening: a minute-and-a half blast of disquietude, featuring rattling random guitar riffs and drums that are painfully off-beat.

Consider it a warning shot.

As the leadoff track, "Conspiracy Theory," suggests, A Question of Temperature (Yep Roc) is not a typical release from Stamey, the venerable purveyor of smart jangle-pop who has spent the better part of the last 15 years producing other artists. He ended a 13-year drought with last summer's Travels in the South, and like its predecessor, this disc -- with Stamey also handling producer duties -- does showcase some of his archetypical warm, earnest narratives. The overall feel, however, is looser, coarser and noticeably noisier.

This approach does not come as a shock, considering: a) the tracks were laid down in three days; b) nearly half of the record is made up of cover songs, lending to the carefree atmosphere; and c) Stamey's former neighbors, the high-minded indie clatter mongers Yo La Tengo, were enlisted as the core backing band for the sessions in the bandís home base of Hoboken, N.J. (also appearing are Stamey's ex-dB's band mate Gene Holder and former Whiskeytown member Caitlin Cary, among others).

The disc is top-heavy with well-chosen covers, including a measured version of Television's "Venus" and ambitious turns through quite disparate tracks from the '60s: a snarling rendition of Cream's "Politician" and raucous take on the politically minded R&B staple "Compared to What." Stamey even updates himself by not only dusting off a track of his own from the 1970s, "The Summer Sun," but giving it a brand new shine.

The results are more uneven when it comes to the rest of Stamey's originals. "Desperate Man" is a welcome slice of power pop, even with its numbingly simplistic lyrics. "Come On," on the other hand, is a banal, lo-fi instrumental that kills the disc's momentum, its endearing surf-style guitar notwithstanding. Likewise, a triumph like the haunting "Sleepless Nights" -- including a well-employed banjo and, in a standout moment of subtlety, a whispered backing vocal by Cary -- is quickly canceled out by the following track, the marathon-like "McCauley Street (Let's Go Downtown)." It presses on for nearly 11 less-than-spellbinding minutes, extended in part by a feedback-laden interlude that doesn't really get anywhere.

The question, then, with A Question of Temperature is whether Stamey's turn toward a more rough-hewn style is a step that ultimately rewards his spontaneity, or makes the album a disposable vanity project. It could be a bit of both; the disc does have its throwaway moments, but then those seem to be part of the mission, considering the album was assembled on the fly, amongst friends.

Considering his track record, it would tough for an old pro like Stamey to make a truly bad album. This disc at least shows that, intentional or not, he is capable of churning out an unfocused one.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at January 24, 2005 04:43 PM